23 September 2011

Yet again, there's no free lunch.

On The Guardian's website, Dan Gillmoor raises a very good point about our increased reliance on and desire for technological interfaces in everyday life. We love the convenience of mobile phones, GPS, and the like. We enjoy the "free" services provided by facebook and, well, blogger.

At facebook, we go apoplectic when they make changes to the interface, acting as if we've paid dearly for a product that the company won't keep as we want it, when really we've paid absolutely nothing...at least in material compensation (we have paid quite a bit in privacy and provided companies like facebook with valuable marketing information, so in essence, they're the ones getting something for next to nothing).

Gillmoor argues, though, that facebook is really only the tip of the iceberg. As our devices get smarter and more interconnected, they and we become reliant and visible to the global network of data exchanges and that exposes us to ever more present surveillance. Speaking of the GM OnStar service, Gillmoor paints a rather dystopian future:
We're only at the beginning of this trend, I fear. Someday soon – count on it – governments will order car makers to install software and communications "services" that give government not just the power to know where you are, but also to govern your top speed or, should it decide it needs to do this, stop your car, dead, on the highway.
I submit it's not terribly far-fetched to speculate in this manner.

Moreover, it raises the point, uncomfortable to many, that Marx was more right than even he knew about the long-term effects of Capitalism. Capitalism created the modern consumer and through the mechanism of commodity fetishism we are being drawn ever deeper culturally into a world in which we become the objects we consume; our identities are no longer even ours, but are rather pieces of data shared around the world and marketed back to us.

Concurrent with the market infiltration of our everyday life, we have the rise of the surveillance state that grows, through our own desire for consumer objects, in its ability to track us and our activities.

Which is not to say that technology is bad. However, we do grow closer to those dystopian imaginings of the 1980s and 1990s in which the only people who can effectively resist the state are those who can re-program or disable the surveillance, like Neo in The Matrix or the Gene Hackman character in Enemy of the State, who exists completely disconnected from the grid and whose most dangerous moments occur when he must reconnect for brief periods.

Once again, the piper gets paid one way or another.

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